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2019 NFL mock draft: ESPN’s Todd McShay has the Patriots pick a tight end in round one... or not

The draft expert sees New England bolster its tight end group.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL scouting combine is over, and one of the things that can be taken away from the week-long event is the quality and depth of the tight end class. Led by Iowa standouts T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, the position group projects to be one of the deepest and most talented in recent memory — one that could see as many as three of its members get drafted in the first round; at least that’s what ESPN’s Todd McShay believes.

McShay released his latest mock draft earlier today and three tight ends go in the first 32 selections: the aforementioned Hockenson and Fant join the Green Bay Packers (#12) and Los Angeles Rams (#31), respectively, while a third tight end gets picked by the New England Patriots:

Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama

I really wanted to go defensive line here with Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton all entering free agency, but there was just no value. Instead, the Alabama tight end would give the Pats an alternative to an aging Rob Gronkowski. But I’d bet that Bill Belichick trades out of the spot to stockpile extra picks.

As McShay notes, the Patriots will have several options at the end of the first round — from bolstering their defensive line to trading out of the pick for extra selections. In this scenario, however, the team chooses to invest in Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr, who would serve a complement as well as a potential heir to Rob Gronkowski as New England’s top tight end.

An all-around tight end that has been productive as both a blocker and a pass catcher — in 2018, Smith Jr. registered 44 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns — in college, the junior could be a day-one impact player at the next level. “His athleticism, smooth routes and strong blocking skills should translate quickly into a versatile starting tight end,” writes The Draft Network’s Jon Ledyard about the 6’2, 240 lbs tight end.

“While Smith may lack elite explosiveness, he still has the speed to win vertically as a flexed receiver while being one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft,” he continued. Indeed, he would check many of the boxes New England wants its tight ends to check — from his route running to his blocking. And while he may lack the elite athletic upside of a player like Fant or Hockenson, Smith Jr. would be a solid addition to the Patriots’ offense not only because of his connection to Bill Belichick protégé Nick Saban.